Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan


Grace ,made physical.

(2016) Documentary (Abramorama) Wendy Whelan, David Michalek, Kay Whelan, Tyler Angle, Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, Kyle Abraham, Josh Beamish, Peter Martins, Brian Brooks, Michelle Rodriguez, Dr. Marc Philippon, Gia Courlas, Emily Coates, Craig Hall, Adam Barrett, Phillip Neal, Alejandro Cerodo, Peter Boa, Wendy Perron, Lisa Ashe, Maria Scherer. Directed by Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger

 

When it comes to art in the United States, New York City is the pinnacle. The best art organizations in the country are, for the most part, there. Every artist worth their salt wants to perform or exhibit there. In many ways, the fine arts are appreciated there like nowhere else in the country, and why not? The best of the best are routinely available for the enjoyment and enrichment of New Yorkers.

Wendy Whelan has danced for the New York Ballet Company for 30 years, the last 23 as their principal dancer. While those unfamiliar with ballet may not know her name, she is widely considered one of the best ballerinas of her generation, if not the best. Her physicality and sensuality have set a standard for dancers around the globe and she has managed to do so without losing her Southern manners drilled into her by her parents during her childhood in Louisville, Kentucky; her relationship with her mother Kay is very strong and loving. She is unfailing polite and sweetnatured to everyone she meets, a far change from the haughty divas that once prowled the backstage of the NYBC.

At age 46, she has performed longer than many ballerinas have in a career in which dancers routinely retire before the age of 40. Despite having been afflicted by childhood scoliosis (we see a picture of her x-ray in which her spine looks like the letter S) she has overcome a full year in a back brace to pursue her love of dance and eventually, reach the top of her profession. She has lived, as she admits candidly to the camera, a fantasy life.

But reality is intruding. Years of dancing takes its toll on the body and Wendy is no exception. Over the years, all the graceful leaps and contortions has done damage to her hip, severe enough that surgery is required. There are no guarantees that she will ever dance again even with the surgery. For someone of Wendy’s determination and near-obsessive focus, betting against her would be a sucker’s bet.

But even overcoming the physical therapy, the pain and the frustration of being sidelined, the one foe she can’t beat is time. NYBC director tells her gently “We don’t want the audience to see you in decline,” explaining why she has been pulled from The Nutcracker Suite, one of her signature roles. Wendy admits that in some ways she hasn’t grown up but she is forced to contemplate what to do with herself when her career inevitably ends.

Whelan gives the filmmakers near-complete access, observing private conversations with her husband David Michalek and allowing cameras to film the initial incisions of her surgery which made me a bit queasy to watch knives going into the body of one of the premiere dancers of our time. She uses the camera as a confessional to a certain extent but one gets the sense that this is a woman who is unfailingly honest with herself and with those around her. While she is a bit self-delusional at times about how long she can perform at peak condition, one gets the sense that once she has endured and conquered the hip surgery that her outlook undergoes a much more realistic change.

As you’d expect with a film about a dancer, there are snippets of her work throughout her career but they are just that – snippets. I’m sure ballet lovers would have preferred to see longer dance sequences; I myself, not being as familiar with her work as the target audience of this documentary might be would have preferred longer sequences even if it meant less variety from her storied career. Near the end we do see footage from her NYBC farewell performance which does give an idea of her grace and physical strength but I think the filmmakers intended this to be less a biography of a dancer and more a portrait of a woman undergoing an existential crisis.

We see some backstage footage as well as sequences where Whelan is mingling with her fellow dancers in social settings – birthday parties, celebrations and meals. I have to admit that at times the camaraderie seems a bit forced as if those in attendance are aware of the presence of the cameras and are pandering to them a bit. Even Wendy, who is natural on-camera throughout, is not unaffected as the awkwardness seems to affect her as well.

But there are some genuine moments too, as we see students from the American Ballet Theater watching Wendy rehearse with fellow dancers Craig Hall and Tyler Angle for her farewell performance; at first it’s just a few awestruck students and then gradually its dozens. A similar thing takes place at the Farewell Concert in which the wings of the NYBC stage are packed with dancers past and present. After the performance, Whelan is nearly buried under roses and flowers presented to her by admirers and colleagues. It is truly a bittersweet moment.

The filmmakers use a cinema verité style to tell the story and while there are some talking heads, it’s refreshing that the movie isn’t too interview-heavy. It makes sense that they’d use that style here however; dance is kinetic and a documentary about a dancer should also be. In that sense they achieve it, even during the slower-paced section of Ms. Whelan’s recovery from surgery.

I’m not so sure this will appeal to people who aren’t into ballet, although I will say that I am not a fan of dance but I still found this enjoyable and informative. Those that give this film a chance should also find it that way as well. Those who already love the beauty and grace of ballet may wish for more dancing and less documentary, but even they will appreciate getting an inside glimpse of the life of one of the most important and influential dancers of our time. Whelan makes an engaging subject and you won’t tire of her even for a moment.

REASONS TO GO: Watching Whelan’s journey is inspiring. The dance sequences are just marvelous.
REASONS TO STAY: Sometimes it feels like the subjects are hyper-aware of the camera. The surgical footage is not for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some occasional profanity, a few drug references and some graphic medical procedure footage.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: First Position
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Burning Sands


Here’s a different kind of human centipede

(2017) Drama (Netflix) Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodward, DeRon Horton, Octavius J. Johnson, Trevante Rhodes, Malik Bazille, Mitchell Edwards, Racquel Bianca John, Steve Harris, Adriyan Rae, Quentin Plair, Christian Robinson, Nafessa Williams, Davyon St. Usaire, Rotimi, Serayah, Daimion Johnson, Tosin Cole, Imami Hakim, Segun Akande, Sidney Freeman. Directed by Gerard McMurray

 

Fraternities and sororities have a time-honored place in the environment of higher education. They are brotherhoods (and sisterhoods) that develop outstanding young men and women, developing them for leadership positions in the future. Unsurprisingly, it takes a great deal of self-discipline and inner fortitude to gain admittance to these institutions.

Zurich (Jackson) is trying to do just that. Pledging the prestigious Lambda Phi fraternity at historically black Frederick Douglass University which claims Dean Richardson (Harris) as an alumnus, he and his four fellow pledges including Square (Horton) and Frank (Cole) undergo ferocious beatings and ritual humiliations that push their endurance beyond their limits. All of them endure these things with near-animal grimaces, telling one another that the rewards will be worth it. Dean Richardson tells Zurich that he is one in a long line of fine gentlemen to survive these rituals and that they serve to toughen them and give them the resilience he needs to be successful in life.

Zurich is not so sure. He suffers a broken rib during one of the beatings and is having increasing trouble with his breathing. His steady girlfriend Rochon (Hakim) is having problems with the amount of time he is devoting to his pledge brothers and is suspicious that he is cheating on her, although Zurich has not been. Keeping up his studies has also been difficult during Hell Week, a fact not unnoticed by his English professor (Woodward).

Each of the pledges has their reasons why becoming accepted by the fraternity is important to them. Zurich just wants to make it through Hell Night, which will end their pledge status and make them full-fledged Lambda Phi brothers but the Hell Night ritual is the most dangerous of all and the five young men will end up risking much more than their dignity to make it through.

While hazing has been outlawed by most colleges and universities, it still exists and there have been instances where students have died as a direct result of hazing rituals. These types of films are an opportunity to examine the mob mentality of human beings and how the desire to fit in sometimes overrules even the most basic of common sense. Sadly, Burning Sands doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity as much as it might.

That isn’t to say that the movie is a failure – far from it, in fact. There are some really outstanding performances here, particularly from Jackson and Horton who not uncoincidentally have the most well-written characters. The movie is mostly Zurich’s point of view as a matter of fact and this is his story much more than it is the other young men. Woodward, one of the best actresses of her generation doesn’t get a lot of screen time but utilizes every moment to weave a most satisfactory appearance in the film.

The women here are essentially ornaments which has been a disturbing trend lately; their characters are given little to do but kvetch at their boyfriends or screw whoever happens to be handy; harridans or whores is what they boil down to here and neither characteristic is particularly flattering. The not-so-subtle sexism dilutes the message somewhat.

Despite these glaring issues I still recommend the movie highly. There is an emotional payoff that ends up being earned – more than that I will not say so as to allow the movie to have maximum impact upon its viewer. While it’s not exactly rocket science to figure out well ahead of time that the pledges of Lambda Phi are headed down a road that leads to nothing good, how that plays out grips the viewer tightly even though it isn’t especially groundbreaking in terms of plot.

Sometimes a movie is greater than the sum of its parts and this is one of those occasions. The movie is flawed, certainly but strong performances can overcome a lot of sins. McMurray, one of the producers on Ryan Coogler’s brilliant Fruitvale Station, doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but tells the story well and show’s not a little potential in the process. While some of the violence may make those sensitive to such things a little faint, the rest of us will be left to wonder why such promising young men are willing to endure so much. There is a fine line between sadism and character-building and established ritual doesn’t excuse crossing that line. This isn’t always easy to watch but it is worth watching all the same.

REASONS TO GO: Jackson, Woodward and Horton all deliver fine performances. The movie takes on a very real issue of fraternity hazing.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the things the pledges go through are sadistic and disgusting; the sensitive viewer may have trouble watching these.
FAMILY VALUES: There are all sorts of violence, sexuality and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival; among the producers are rapper Common and comedian Reginald Hudlin.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goat
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

David Brent: Life on the Road


David Brent is his own biggest fan.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey “Doc Brown” Smith, Jo Hartley, Tom Basden, Mandeep Dhillon, Abbie Murphy, Andrew Brooke, Tom Bennett, Rebecca Gethings, Andy Burrows, Stuart Wilkinson, Steve Clarke, Michael Clarke, Nina Sosanya, Stacha Hicks, Kevin Bishop, Alexander Arnold, Dermot Keaney, Diane Morgan. Directed by Ricky Gervais

 

Most Americans are aware of the version of the sitcom The Office that starred Steve Carell and a fair amount of them are probably aware that it was based on a British version starring Ricky Gervais. Much fewer of the American audience have probably ever seen any of the British episodes and fewer still will likely have enjoyed it; certainly it is an acquired taste and although it shares many attributes with the American version, the two are quite different.

David Brent (Gervais) was the boss in The Office but he’s fallen on hard times. He works as a salesman of toilet cleaning products for a company called Lavichem and although he turns a somewhat upbeat face to it, one can tell that he is not satisfied at all with the way things have turned out. He’s bullied mercilessly by fellow salesman Jezza (Brooke) and is often the subject of serious conversations with HR manager Miriam Clark (Gethings).

He isn’t without admirers though, like Nigel (Bennett) who looks up to him as a comic mentor, or hopelessly besotted Pauline (Hartley) and the sweet receptionist Karen (Dhillon).  Still, Brent can’t help but feel as if his destiny is passing him by and that destiny is to be – a rock star. So, he assembles a second version of his original band Foregone Conclusion (which includes We are Scientists drummer Andy Burrows) and taking unpaid leave from Lavichem hits the road to do ten dates in the Midlands….all within a few hours’ drive of his flat in London. Along for the unwilling ride is Dom Johnson (Brown), a fairly talented rapper whom David brings along for the street cred he miserably lacks and whom David generally refuses to allow to perform except to use David’s abhorrent lyrics. Cashing out his pension, David undergoes financing the entire tour himself, much to the concern of sound engineer/road manager Andy Chapman (Chapman).

David’s tendency is to blurt out whatever comes to mind without first passing it through a filter, following it with a sort of strangled giggle as if to say “Oh dear, what have I gone and said now?” as a kind of embarrassed signature. He stops conversations dead with his pronouncements and off-the-wall observations that betray sexism and bigotry that most people have the good sense to keep to themselves if they possess those tendencies at all.

True to form, he alienates everyone in his band to the point where they force him not to join them on the tour bus he rented but to follow in his own car behind it. They refuse to dress with him, forcing him to have his own dressing room. The songs that he writes for them to play are pretty awful and the band is humiliated at gig after gig; the only saving grace is that nobody is showing up at them and those that do are drawn out of curiosity to Brent’s quasi-fame (the film treats The Office as a documentary which of course it was made to resemble) and most leave well before the gig is over.

Against all odds, one ends up feeling a kind of sympathy for Brent. He’s the guy who doesn’t realize that he is the joke and nobody is laughing. Still, he soldiers on either because he’s oblivious or refuses to let it get him down. There is a kind of nobility in that which is fascinating, because believe me Brent says some of the vilest things. There is a whole sequence around the “N” word that takes uncomfortable to new levels.

This is a comedy of awkward silences. There is no laugh track and no incidental music, just like the sitcom. The silence serves to make the audience feel more and more uncomfortable which I suppose is a form of humor. In its time it was innovative although it seems a bit dated now. The problem is that the movie doesn’t really add anything to what’s already out there; although Gervais has gone to great pains to distance this project from The Office, his presence essentially makes the sitcom the elephant in the room by default. That begs the question; why did this film need to get made? Some fans will just be happy to see Brent back in the saddle but others will need more than that.

In general, those who adored the British version of The Office will likely enjoy this or at least be interested in checking it out. Those who found the show puzzling will likely not find any insights here that will change their minds. It’s definitely an acquired taste and those who have not yet acquired it should probably give this a miss. Otherwise, those who have might find something here worth ingesting although they likely won’t find it as good as the original.

REASONS TO GO: Gervais actually manages to make Brent somewhat sympathetic. Fans of the British Office will find this right up their alley.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a very acquired taste, just like the original The Office. It’s an hour and 36 minutes of awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and drug humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although David Brent is depicted driving a car on numerous occasions in the film, Ricky Gervais actually doesn’t know how to drive.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Office (BBC Version)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Burning Sands

Ghost in the Shell (2017)


Scarlett Johansson in her skinsuit; adolescent boys of the world, you’re welcome.

(2017) Science Fiction (DreamWorks/Paramount) Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Ashbæk, Juliette Binoche, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, Michael Carmen Pitt, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Lasarus Ratuere, Yutaka Izumihara, Tawanda Manyimo, Peter Ferdinando, Anamaria Marinca, Daniel Henshall, Mana Davis, Erroll Anderson, Kai Fung Rieck, Andrew Stehlin, Matthias Luafutu, Kaori Momoi. Directed by Rupert Sanders

 

Technology is a part of our everyday lives. For the most part, it makes our lives easier although in many cases it complicates things. Biomedical advances have allowed people who would ordinarily have been disabled or worse to live full productive lives. As technology integrates itself more and more into our lives and even into our own bodies, at some point we must re-examine what it means to be human.

Mira Killian (Johansson) wakes up in the hospital with little memory of how she got there. Her physician, Dr. Ouelet (Binoche) informs her that she was the victim of a terrorist attack; her body was so torn up that her mind, spirit and personality have all been transferred into the body of an android. She will be stronger, faster, more powerful – and able to fight terrorists the way most humans could not.

A year later she is better known as Major (for her rank) and she and her partner Batou (Ashbæk) work for Section 9, a shadowy elite government strike force that takes on terrorists. A specific terrorist known as Kuze (Pitt) has been targeting scientists and executives of the Hanka Robotics Corporation, the conglomerate who happens to employ Dr. Ouelet and who were responsible for saving Major’s life.

Kuze seems to know more about Major’s past than the Major herself and the deeper Major looks into the CEO of Hanka, a smarmy man named Cutter (Ferdinando) to whom the head of Section 9, the honorable and imperturbable Aramaki (Kitano) seems to report, the more suspicious she gets of his motives. She begins to realize that she is in a nightmare from which there is no waking – and she might just be fighting for the wrong side.

Based on a 1995 anime (which was in turn based on a popular Japanese manga), Sanders has done a fine job in bringing that anime to the live action scene. Often the shots are literally perfect reproductions of the anime. The cityscape is absolutely breath-taking and while the overhead flyover shots get a little dizzying after awhile, the CGI background never lets the audience down.

Neither does Johansson. Already a fan favorite due to her work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she has become one of the biggest stars in the world and this role is really perfect for her abilities. She exudes both grace and strength as well as intelligence and sensuality; it’s no wonder that a lot of fanboy types consider Johansson the most desirable woman in Hollywood. In some ways Major is one of the most complex roles she’s taken on; there is a machine-like coldness to her but at the same time she is tormented by tantalizing glimpses of her past. She is relentless looking in directions her employers don’t want her to explore, and when push comes to shove is willing to risk anything to find out the truth about herself and about Hanka.

Kitano, one of the most revered action stars in Japan who while little known to the general public in the United States is nonetheless held in high regard by those buffs of Asian action movies, shows us why he is the source of such affection. I am always a little leery of using the adjective “inscrutable” in connection with Asian actors but that word best defines his performance here. Partially paralyzed in the face due to a scooter accident 20 years ago, his expression is generally unreadable and when he explodes into action during a glorious sequence there is little warning. It is one of the most satisfying sequences in the movie.

There are a few problems here though. The plot is pretty convoluted and following it isn’t always easy. I get the sense that Sanders and the writing team were trying to make a film that was visually overwhelming (which it is), chock full of exciting action sequences (which it is for the most part) and also thought-provoking (which it is in places). While it is possible to be all of those things at once, it is a very difficult balancing act and Ghost in the Shell doesn’t quite achieve it and as I recall, neither did the original anime although it came closer than this.

Brilliant in some stretches, flawed in others, the film lacks consistency which makes it hard to appreciate those sequences that do work well – and there are more than a few of them. The sensory overload of the cityscape may be troubling to those who are easily overwhelmed but to those who appreciate the detail in the crafting of the futuristic landscape it will be an absolute dream come true. The detail in those backgrounds is truly astonishing but they’ll disappear in the wink of an eye. Never has a movie that looked like it belonged on a theater screen ever needed the benefit of a remote control so that viewers could pause the film just to take in the details. If only there could have been a little been more conciseness in the screenplay; this could have been the first peg in a tentpole franchise but sadly, the box office numbers don’t really support one.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects and action sequences are dazzling. Johansson is a natural action heroine.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit muddled. The film tries too hard to be all things to all people.
FAMILY VALUES: There is frequent violence, some disturbing images and a few moments of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The city depicted in the film, although not mentioned by name, is based on Hong Kong although with heavy digital additions.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I, Robot
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: David Brent: Life on the Road

Buster’s Mal Heart


Fear the beard.

(2016) Drama (Well Go USA) Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly, Bruce Bundy, Teresa Yenque, Jared Larson, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor, RJ Burns, Gabriel Clark, Lily Gladstone, Chris Toma, Shi Ne Nielson, Ricky Hartung, Tom Cordingley, Dr. Franklin Ruehl, Kate Berlant (voice), Jenny Leonhardt. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith

Florida-film-festival-2017

For most of us, there comes a time in our lives when we strongly suspect that there’s something terribly wrong with the system. I’m not talking about capitalism, communism or anything like that; I mean there’s something terribly wrong with the system of life. There’s a glitch in God’s software, in other words. A patch is sorely needed.

Jonah (Malek) is a concierge at a budget hotel in a Montana resort area. He works the graveyard shift, and although his title is fancy his job is not. He works the front desk and does all sorts of odd jobs around the hotel; throwing linens into an industrial laundry machine, putting dishes through a washer, fishing out slices of pizza from the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and vacuuming carpets endlessly. When he’s not doing these things, he’s bored almost to tears; religious programming plays on the TV set endlessly and on the hotel’s handball court he tosses a rubber ball in a desultory way at the wall.

At home, he plays with his daughter Roxy (Potter) and is affectionate with his wife Marty (Sheil) but is less friendly with her parents, particularly the venomous Pauline (Shaye) who is hypercritical of everything he does. It is, after all, her house they live in, Jonah pulling in a paltry sum from the hotel. He and Marty dream of one day owning their own parcel of land where they can bring up their daughter the way they want to. He has chronic insomnia, unable to sleep during the day.

One night a strange drifter (Qualls) comes into the hotel, looking for a room for the night. He has no identification and refuses to pay with anything but cash. Corporate policy requires ID and a credit card but Jonah lets him stay anyway. The two strike up a conversation and the drifter has some fairly interesting viewpoints. He is apparently a computer software engineer, trying to insure that Y2K won’t bring the world’s economy to a grinding halt. He also talks about an event called The Inversion, when life on Earth will be irrevocably changed and only a leap into the sphincter-like opening of a wormhole will save those who believe in the Inversion from annihilation. In Jonah’s sleep-deprived state, the ramblings of the drifter make a whole lot of sense; there is, after all, a bug in the system.

Buster (Malek) is the name locals use for a bearded mountain man who survives the harsh Montana winters by breaking into expensive vacation homes and living off the food stored therein. He makes incoherent calls to radio talk shows, babbling about an event called The Inversion. He is harmless, really; he meticulously cleans the homes he squats in and leaves them as he found them except for two quirky things; he turns the photographs hanging on the walls of the homes he stays in upside down and once in awhile, he takes a dump in a cooking pot and leaves it on the dining room table. He is clearly not operating with a full deck.

He is essentially harmless but the local Deputy Winston (Huss) has vowed to capture Buster despite the fact that he has never harmed a fly. However, when an elderly couple surprise Buster inside their home, he takes them hostage, treating them politely and even cooking them dinner but then locking them in a closet and refusing to speak to them. Things change rapidly after that.

A man (Malek) floats in a rowboat in the middle of a vast body of water There may or may not be another man with him; we can’t be sure. The man has a long and unkempt beard and hair. He gets his sustenance by fishing and from time to time rages at the heavens. He is tired of this life and of the pain and suffering and only wants to die.

These three – Jonah, Buster and the Man in the Boat – could all be the same man. Then again, they may not be although it is very likely that Jonah and Buster are indeed the same guy. If so, what happened to change Jonah from a rational, loving father and husband to a wild and unstable mountain man?

Second-time director Smith who also wrote the movie has come up with an interesting and somewhat cerebral quasi-science fiction outing that doesn’t always state its case clearly. Much of what is happening onscreen defies explanation and the audience is left to come up with their own answers which is a highly dangerous endeavor these days; most audiences would much rather have the answers handed to them.

Malek, the Emmy-winning star of Mr. Robot, takes on his first feature lead role and shows that he is not only capable of handling it but of shining while doing it. He reminds me strongly of a young John Malkovich both physically and in his performance. While the movie bounces around from time to time, Malek truly holds it together. He is never anything less than mesmerizing.

The movie is long on ideas but a bit short on developing them. There is a kind of vagueness although some things seem pretty clear; it’s just you need to connect the dots somewhat and that can be a bit tiring for those not used to it. The sense of things being not quite right is prevalent throughout the movie; it leads you to mistrust what you’re seeing onscreen and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Smith clearly takes the old saw of “the road not taken” literally to heart and we are left to wonder if the high road was necessarily the right one in this case. The grief of Buster doesn’t necessarily come to the forefront but it’s there and although we may not realize it at the time, we are watching the actions of a man in unimaginable pain. Whether or not that man is still sane – or even still human – is up to you to decide.

REASONS TO GO: You are definitely going to need your brain in full gear for this one. Malek is a natural lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too confusing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult thematic elements, some violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek was already cast while the film was still in development before breaking out in Mr. Robot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ghost in the Shell

Life


Ryan Reynolds in space.

(2017) Science Fiction (Columbia) Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Rebecca Ferguson, Hiroyuki Sanada, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ariyon Bakare, David Muir, Elizabeth Vargas, Jesus Del Orden, Allen McLean, Leila Grace Bostwick-Riddell, Mari Gvelesiani, Haruka Kuroda, Alexandre Nguyen, Woong-sin Hiu, Camiel Warren-Taylor, Naoko Mori. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

 

Space, by definition, is lifeless. Space movies shouldn’t be. The best science fiction movies allow us to see ourselves through a window of “what-if.” I suppose that’s true of movies, period.

The International Space Station is on a mission to retrieve a robotic spacecraft returning from Mars. Knocked off of its trajectory by space debris, it hurtles towards the ISS which will have just one opportunity to grab it or else the soil samples and data it collected will be lost forever. Astronaut Rory Adams (Reynolds) snags the spacecraft and brings it into the space station. There, biologist Hugh Derry (Bakare) makes a startling discovery; there is life in the Martian soil. Single celled, maybe, but life nonetheless. The living organism becomes a sensation back at home as the astronauts study it and a naming contest among schoolkids bestow upon the creature the name “Calvin.”

As anyone who has ever seen this kind of movie knows, this doesn’t end well. When Calvin goes dormant, the supposedly brilliant scientists on the space station – presumably with the blessing of colleagues on Earth – decide to use an electrical current to wake up the organism. That’s a pretty rude thing to do to a guest, don’t you think?

Certainly Calvin thinks so and he reacts to the rudeness with homicidal mania. Wouldn’t you? In any case Calvin holds a few xenomorphing surprises up his sleeve…well, he doesn’t have sleeves exactly but you get my meaning. In any case he starts picking off the astronauts one by one and it becomes horribly apparent that the crew must keep Calvin from heading to Earth at all costs – even at the cost of their own lives.

This was originally slated for a summertime release before it was knocked back to March and for good reason; this is a seriously flawed film. For one thing, it follows Ridley Scott’s Alien virtually note for note. I’ll be honest, it’s better to rip off a classic film than a mediocre one but nonetheless the writers don’t offer anything new; it’s just a different kind of xenomorph than the original and it takes place closer to home in both time and place. You could do a pretty decent mash-up with the two movies and never lose a beat.

Espinosa has gotten himself a stellar cast for his movie. Reynolds and Gyllenhaal are two of the most popular stars out there and Reynolds brings the wise-ass persona from his most recent films onto the ISS here. It works rather nicely. Gyllenhaal is a bit more workmanlike, but nonetheless holds the attention of the viewer with his own intensity. He’s a little bit miscast but pulls it off nonetheless.

Most of the rest of the cast is fairly colorless which is a shame because the actors while lesser known than the two leads are solid in the acting department, particularly Sanada and Ferguson. The characters are essentially disposable, meant to be death bait for the CGI alien who is apparently much brighter than the humans because the humans keep putting themselves in situations that are way more dangerous than they have to be. Astronauts are supposed to be smart and in The Martian they were; here, they’re just good looking.

A movie like this is going to live and die on its CGI and the graphics here aren’t bad. Calvin shows up pretty early on and while he morphs into a succeeding variety of creatures each more deadly than the last, we don’t get the mystery we got from the original Alien where the creature wasn’t revealed until much later in the movie. This is a bit of a technical error on the part of the filmmakers. The first part of the movie when we’re meeting Calvin in his initial forms is far more interesting than the bug hunt portion of the film at the end.

I don’t mind films borrowing from other films. There is nothing new under the sun (or apparently under the stars) after all. I just wish there would be just a little bit more variance from the source material. Everything here is way predictable including the ending. This is basically a poster child for wasted opportunity. The idea behind Calvin was a good one; if only they had surrounded him with a story worthy of that imagination

REASONS TO GO: The alien creature is pretty nicely accomplished. Reynolds is on a roll and this kind of film is just tailor-made for him.
REASONS TO STAY: There is definitely a been-there, seen-that feel to the film. The second half of the movie loses what good will the first half builds up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language and a modicum of sci-fi violence and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Skydance Media, the production company primarily responsible for the film, has been based at Paramount for seven years; not only is this their first film for a distributor other than Paramount, it is also their first R-rated film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Alien
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Buster’s Mal Heart

Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

(2016) Drama (BH Tilt/Telemundo) Gabriel Chavarria, Demián Bichir, Theo Rossi, Tony Revolori, Melissa Benoist, Yvette Monreal, Eva Longoria, Montse Hernandez, Noel Gugliemi, Bryan Rubio, Cress Williams, Franck Khalfoun, Pepe Serna, Taishi Mizuno, David Fernandez Jr., Art Laboe, Damien Bray, Tiffany Gonzalez, Johanna Sol, Jamie Owen, Stacey Bender, Pandie Suicide. Directed by Ricardo de Montreuil

To outsiders, the car clubs of the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles must seem as foreign and mysterious as Shaolin temples. Those familiar with the Fast and Furious movie franchise might think they have car culture figured out, but it’s like watching an episode of Big Bang Theory and thinking you have nuclear physics figured out.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is the youngest son of a Lowrider legend; Manuel Alvarez (Bichir). He basically grew up in his father’s garage and weathered the sorrow of his mom’s illness and death there. He admittedly didn’t get a whole lot of help from his dad, who was battling his own alcoholism even as his wife was dying. Manuel cleaned up his act enough to marry Gloria (Longoria) whom he met cruising; he has since fathered a daughter Isabel (Hernandez) who is preparing for her quinceañera. His big brother Francisco (Rossi) – upon whom Danny has bestowed the nickname of Ghost – is in prison after being caught and convicted of stealing auto parts to customize his own car.

Manuel has been working on a new car, a 1961 Chevy Impala that he’s named Green Poison (for the custom green fleck paint on the roof of the car) for the upcoming Elysian Car Show, one of the most prestigious of its kind. He would love to be working on it with his son Danny but the young man in question has been following a path of his own – street art. Danny is a talented and imaginative street artist where his graffiti shows up in a lot of unexpected places. His dad is worried that the illegal activity might get Danny arrested and the thought of both of his sons in the slammer is more than he can bear.

But Ghost has just gotten released from prison and he is reconnecting with his little brother in a big way. Ghost has a mad on because Manuel never visited him in prison, not once. He definitely has some Daddy issues and has gone so far as to join a rival car club that is a little bit rougher than Manuel’s old school Coasters car club. As Elysian approaches, Ghost and Manuel are on a collision course and Danny is caught in the middle. It looks for sure like a head-on is inevitable.

I have to admit, when I read the plot line for the movie in advance of seeing it I really didn’t expect much and in some ways I was correct not to. The plot is pretty hoary and has been done many times before onscreen dealing with old school dads and rebellious sons who are estranged but who reconcile their differences to achieve the impossible or at least the nearly so. Those familiar with those sorts of movies will find no surprises here.

The good news is that we really get what feels like an insider look at East L.A. Although de Montreuil is Peruvian by birth, he understands the Latin beat that drives the Eastside well. From the rhythms of speech to the thudding of loud music coming from outrageous speakers in outrageous cars, he captures the atmosphere of Baldwin Park so perfectly you can almost smell the carnitas simmering.

Bichir is one of the best actors working today; he has the gravitas of a young Edward James Olmos with a fatherly sensibility of a Tom Bosley. He anchors this movie in ways that the younger cast members can’t; he gives Manuel dignity, even when Manuel is frankly being a dick. He also gives him a certain amount of uncertainty; like all fathers, Manuel has no idea how to react to things outside of his experience. He just plows along doing the best he can which isn’t always good enough.

Rossi and Chavarria both exhibit a great deal of star power and both have virtually unlimited potential. In this day and age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of matinee idol love for non-white actors and so that might stand in their way somewhat but they both deserve to be A-listers. Were I a Hollywood producer I’d have absolute confidence in either one of them to carry my picture.

The main problem here is that writers Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker have spent nearly all of their character depth on the men. The women in this film are of little consequence, either ornaments or child nurturers. While Gloria is characterized as someone who knows her way around an engine, she is given little chance to show it. Even Lorelei (Benoist) who is Danny’s photographer girlfriend is mainly just a hipster caricature. She essentially disappears from the film about 2/3 of the way through and other than a brief moment at the very end is never to be seen again. Maybe Supergirl can find her.

The ending is pretty rote but satisfying enough for me to give the movie a strong recommendation. I think De Montreuil is an up-and-coming talent to be reckoned with, considering he did so much with so little. If he can make a superior movie out of what is essentially a cliché script, imagine what he could do with something more substantial.

REASONS TO GO: We get an insight into East L.A. car culture and the amazing vehicles therein. The ending, although predictable, was satisfying. De Montreuil shows a great deal of promise.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat passé. I wish that the female characters had gotten a bit more depth to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence, some sensuality and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily Collins was initially cast but had to drop out due to scheduling difficulties. Melissa Benoist eventually took her part.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Life